Arizona-UCLA: One huge storyline, prediction

All eyes on Arizona QB Rhett Rodriguez

Normally, I would do something to like "five things to watch" to preview the Arizona-UCLA game, but let's not kid ourselves.

There is one thing -- one really ginormous thing -- to watch tonight (7:30 p.m. PT., ESPN2) from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.


Arizona sophomore Rhett Rodriguez, the son of fired Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez who starred at Catalina Foothills High School, will make his first college start in place of the injured Khalil Tate, who took a seat this week to rest his injured left ankle.

First-year coach Kevin Sumlin made that decision early in the week, allowing Rodriguez (and true freshmen Jamarye Joiner and Kevin Doyle) to direct and prepare the offense in practice.

Any predictions of 2018 success for Arizona (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) began with the athleticism of Tate, a big-play runner with a big-time arm. And predictions of success for Arizona against UCLA (1-5, 1-2) begin with the headiness and steadiness of RhettRod.

Tucson high school coaching legend Jeff Scurran, who coached Rodriguez at Catalina Foothill High School, spoke with Javier Morales of our sister site, about his former quarterback.

"You look at a kid like Khalil Tate, and it's a 'wow,'" Scurran said.

"But when you look at Rhett, it's a different path to success. It's apples and oranges. Rhett gets the job done; he doesn't make mistakes. He's a great leader. He knows everybody's jobs. And the kids tend to flock to that.

"And sometimes with a guy who is an athlete like Khalil -- and it's not Khalil's fault by any means -- but the rest of the team goes, 'Khalil, make a play,' where Rhett challenges the other kids on the team to make a play. That inclusiveness creates a different practice environment, and therein lies the success that you teach about football -- you play the way you practice."

Rodriguez entered last week's game -- a 42-10 loss at Utah in which Tate was pulled due to injury after two series -- late in the first half. He went the rest of the way, completing 20 of 38 passes for 226 yards and one touchdown.

Tate has only rushed for 112 yards this season. Against FBS competition -- throwing out a big game against Southern Utah -- he has completed 82 of 158 passes (51.9 percent) for 1,066 yards, with six TDs and four interceptions.

As Scurran noted, a lack of continuity and experience on the offensive line has played a part in Tate's struggles -- and that of the offense -- and it's not as if Tate has been surrounded by an all-star cast of skill-position players.

Now, it's RhettRod's turn. With his modest athletic skills, he will have to think the offense down the field.

Scurran said he has no doubt that Rodriguez, at least, will be prepared.

"It's the grind that Rhett was do good at it," Scurran said.

"Rhett is a product of hard work -- over and over and over, endless repetitions, to where you develop a certain confidence in yourself. And when the team sees you doing that, it changes the entire dynamic of how your organization operates.

"I'd love to have an athlete like Khalil at quarterback -- I mean, who wouldn't? -- but there's a model under which a guy like Rhett can be highly successful in the right system."


It's rare when a 1-5 team is a 10-point favorite against a conference opponent, but that's where UCLA finds itself against Arizona. The Bruins are perhaps peaking -- such as it is -- in their first season under Chip Kelly, coming off a 37-7 win over Cal.

Arizona is at its worst against physical teams, which UCLA can't claim to be -- at least to the same level of BYU and Utah (and even Houston to some degree). Moreover, the Bruins haven't been dynamic offensively, with true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson learning on the job at quarterback, although running back Joshua Kelley, a transfer from UC Davis, has been quite a find, rushing for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games.

Rodriguez is the huge X-factor here. Will the team be energized?

Maybe ... but I also think UCLA will be ready.

The Bruins have enough confidence in their defensive backs -- cornerbacks Darnay Holmes and Nate Meadors, and strong safety Adarius Pickett, for example -- to get up on Arizona's receivers and challenge the short throws that Arizona wants to make. The longer Rodriguez has to hold the ball -- and the further down field he has to look -- the greater the advantage to the Bruins.

UCLA 28, Arizona 14.